The Japanese auto industry has more than two dozen manufacturers producing everything from cargo trucks to motorcycles, compact urban runabouts, and world-beating all-wheel-drive supercars. They have only ever built one V12 engine, and it's inside a Toyota Century, the 17-foot-long limousine generally considered to be the equal of something like a Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. Yes, you read that right: a Toyota being compared to a Rolls. In the hierarchy of Tokyo traffic, these stately livery cars are the top of the food chain. Salarymen and middle management ride the subway. Foreigners take a cab. A Mercedes S-Class or a BMW 7-series is the ride of choice for flashy up-and-coming youngsters in the boardroom.
But a Toyota Century, gliding between toaster-sized compacts and glittering neon signs like a barracuda in the shallows, is a true display of power and reserve. It's at once noticeable but subtle, with phoenix-crested wheelcovers and old-fashioned styling that's a rebuttal to the likes of the Mercedes-Maybach's giant alloys and conspicuous consumption. The first owners are often businessmen or government officials of the highest level. The second owner might be a high-ranking crime boss in the Yakuza. In Tokyo, when a Century rolls by people look without looking, keeping the car in their peripheral vision but not wishing to give offense.
Several thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean the only V12 Toyota Century in North America noses its way up to the curb, bemusing a passing pair of middle-aged women out for a jog. “It looks a bit like my uncle's old car,” one opines. The other reads the glittering lettering on the back, “Century? It's a Buick?”
There isn't time to explain that this two-ton beast is actually the Camry's impassive Imperial overlord. While Nissan makes a similarly-sized limousine called the President, and while the more modern Toyota Crown is often used to ferry well-to-do guests to and from Japanese hotels, the twelve-cylinder Century is without peer.
The first generation dates back to 1967 and features V8 power and the gold brick curbside presence of a ZiL. For thirty years almost nothing changed in the styling, making it the car of choice for highly conservative Japanese executives. The Nissan execs who exiled Yutaka Katayama to California for daring to dabble in sportscar racing would have respected this car—even as they sought to compete with it.
But when the replacement Century arrived in 1997 with a five-liter, 280hp V12, Toyota crushed all opposition with a silken smile. Perhaps the most conservative of the Japanese manufacturers had produced the most conservative of cars, an ultra-quiet luxury pleasure craft to make an Lexus LS400 look like a base Corolla.
Key the ignition, a whirr and a purr as the 1GZ-FE V12 yawns awaken. Engage the gated shifter with your left hand, signal with your right, and then glide away from the curb as your rear seat passenger closes the lace curtains against prying eyes, lowering a footrest in the process.
This particular example is a 2000 model year but almost every second-generation Century is exactly the same because the car is virtually unchanged over nearly two decades. In 2005 air suspension and a six-speed transmission were added but the exterior styling and the interior amenities changed little. That wool interior is intended to eliminate squeaks and sweating in the humid Tokyo summer, and if the satellite navigation is somewhat primitive it speaks to the fact that the owner employs a highly trained driver capable of navigating without electronic aids.
This particular model belongs to Helen Poon, a collector who also has an early Bentley and pre-war Rolls-Royce in her garage. Still forbidden in America, the grey-market Century is allowable in Canada under a more-lax 15-year age limit; Vancouver is already awash in Nissan Skylines and Mitsubishi Delicas.
In Tokyo, a Century will cut its own wake through slow-moving traffic. On the streets of Vancouver, rumpled by heavy trucks and constant construction, threading a right-hand-drive executive machine through tight spaces takes some doing. Eventually, we arrive at the docks like some Seibu Keisatsu crime lord rolling up to cut a deal.
The V12 is absolutely lovely, assigned a horsepower figure under the Japanese Gentleman's Agreement but probably making more like 310hp. In this four-speed model it's the torque that's really prodigious, a solid 355lb-ft to pit against that 4300lb curb weight.
Not that you move fast in a Century. It's a car to be driven slowly, gracefully. There's no need to rush; if you're riding in one of these the committee is waiting for your entrance before they begin, anyway. (Or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that the informant tied up in some dimly-lit waterfront warehouse isn't going anywhere?) You glide onwards, with a touch of menace regardless of profession, in the finest machine Japan produces.